Politics

The attack on the Capitol and how to protect 'the home of the people'

Former Sergeant-at-arms Kevin Vickers talks to Marie-Danielle Smith about the difficult balance between security and openness, and the dangers of building walls

As Canadians watched the infiltration of the U.S. Capitol building on Wednesday, many of us—especially those who work on and around Parliament Hill in Ottawa—flashed back to Oct. 22, 2014. On that day, a lone wolf actor shot Cpl. Nathan Cirillo dead at the Canadian National War Memorial before running inside Centre Block and getting killed in a shootout with security personnel. Kevin Vickers, the Sergeant-at-arms in charge of House of Commons security, was part of that shootout.

The incident provoked vigorous debate over security on the Hill, just as the pro-Trump insurrectionists’ violence and vandalism will prompt urges to better secure American lawmakers. But Vickers says he doesn’t believe in building walls around legislators. Now happily retired after an ambassadorship to Ireland and a foray into politics as leader of the New Brunswick Liberals, the career RCMP officer caught up with Maclean’s on Thursday.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What you were thinking and feeling as you watched events unfold at the Capitol yesterday?

A: At Capitol Hill, they call the building the home of the people, and our House of Commons in Ottawa is the house of the commoners in Ottawa. It’s not a public building, it doesn’t belong to any political party, it belongs to the people of Canada and it just happens that Parliament takes place in that building. The building truly belongs to Marie-Danielle and other people, it’s a shared people. You should always have, as a Canadian citizen, and as a citizen in any democracy, the right to go to that building, and witness, and be free to walk around and do whatever you wish to do. Because it’s a home of your democracy and it’s your building. 

With that, there’s a responsibility of acting responsibly. And our democracy would not be a democracy if people were not allowed to protest. That’s the very foundation and heart of democracy is people’s freedom to speak and do that. The first amendment in the United States gives American people that right, but it says in the first amendment: peacefully. And yes, tragically and sadly, the citizens that participated in that event did not act responsibly and probably crossed the line. 

I was watching it unfold on Twitter over the past week. President Trump appeared to be throwing gas on it. Pushing it on, and encouraging it on, so I have no doubt whatsoever that Capitol Hill police sort of reached out to the organizers and people that were orchestrating that event yesterday and trying to come up with some manner in which they could facilitate their right to protest and allowing the work of Congress and the Senate to go on. Pure conjecture, pure speculation on my part but I’m wondering given this was something that was being broadcast, where everybody knew that trouble was coming, was there a reluctance or hesitancy? At the end of the day, I’m sure one of the ways they could’ve prevented all this from happening was surrounding that building with American troops. Is that the image you want to show the world? We could’ve lined the street with RCMP officers. 

Can you imagine if that event tried to take place in Russia yesterday, or China or Iran? Those people, they’d be part of tank tracks. They’d be mown over. So as ugly as yesterday was, and an attack on democracy, really, my view is that democracy prevailed. There was a measured approach. The police could have acted in a much more severe and heavy-handed fashion. They chose not to.

Q: It’s interesting to think about what could’ve happened yesterday if police hadn’t taken such a measured approach.

A: It’s a very difficult thing. That’s the home of our democracy, and to allow the citizens of our countries access to the home of their democracy, they certainly have a right to it. It’s their building, it’s not a government building. Nobody should ever have the authority or power to say, “No, you can’t go in there.” That’s what democracy is all about. That’s why great soldiers in the First World War and Second World War gave their lives, for that freedom in a democratic society. 

Security people have the responsibility to facilitate and maintain that balance of the citizens’ right and privilege and access to their building, while at the same time trying to maintain some type of decorum, so the legislative branch, Congress in the United States, can unfold in a peaceful manner. It’s always an incredibly difficult balance.

Q: What has that balance looked like in Canada?

A: I spoke last night with some of the older security guys who were there [on Parliament Hill] before I was. I was there from 2006 to 2015 and during my time, several times, our chamber was overwhelmed by demonstrators where the speaker of the House at that time, Peter Milliken, had to shut down Parliament during Parliament and give security a hand, or time, and sometimes it took us an hour, an hour and a half to clear out the galleries at the House of Commons. You know what we witnessed yesterday has taken place at least 15 times in the last couple of decades in our own Parliament building. 

Before my time there was one in particular, apparently a large group of Canadian farmers came to protest issues with the milk marketing board that was going to be changed. Literally there were fisticuffs, all hell broke loose and our House of Commons security people were involved in extraordinary physical contact with the farmers who were there. A lot of these times, a lot of the issues you see with the behaviour you’re witnessing is based on a lot of emotion, passion and usually when you have a bunch of people together a pack or mob mentality takes over. 

I remember one political party had a large event at Centre Block, they invited a couple hundred people in for lunch one day under the auspices of some political meeting. And they had lunch and after lunch, all the participants went up and sat in the gallery at the House of Commons and as Question Period had just begun the whole crowd of them stood up and raised holy hell protesting against the seal hunt. When people say, “how did they access the building,” it would not be uncommon in my experience where politicians aid and abet. 

And there’s all kinds of different ways. I remember a convent called and asked for a booking at the House of Commons. A group of nuns wanted to come over and witness the events. Our guys made sure they would be taken to security and looked after, so the nuns all arrived in their habits and security took them up to the gallery. But they weren’t nuns at all. They were protesters. Again, a big ruckus ensued and they were belligerent.

Q: As you were watching everything, at the moment when, as you say, the protest turned into something else and became more violent, were you putting yourself in the shoes of the security staff there?

A: When things really fall apart, it’s a crisis and when a crisis happens things go wrong. You know, “Why didn’t you do this or why didn’t you do that.” You can sit back and quarterback. The big thing is to make sure that the people that are there that need that protection get that protection. And I’m confident that the Capitol police would have plans and contingencies in place to ensure the politicians and staff working there would’ve been taken to safe rooms or down rooms. And you know, again very regrettable to see citizens act clearly beyond the pale when it comes to protest. At the same time, you have that responsibility to ensure that that’s their right, and it’s protected, and trying to come up with that balance. Not easy. 

Q: And probably scary in the moment.

A: Oh, look, it is. And Oct. 22 [2014] is another totally different situation but again, it’s those types of events where your heart’s pounding and you’re hoping that everybody’s going to be safe. 

Q: You talk about needing to strike a balance, but what happened yesterday could lead to demands for greater security. You end up with people hoping these kinds of buildings turn into fortresses and you wonder how much security is too much security.

A: That question was my life in 2015. You always have so many different perspectives even among the politicians, advocating for more and more and more security. And then there’d be a loss. You want the doors locked to keep people out. That was the importance of the House of Commons as an organization, being nonpartisan, is try to come up with that balance. Yes the building has to be secure, people can’t come in with guns or, yesterday, with pipe bombs. 

But that’s been a debate in Ottawa since 1867, you know? And you have so much perspective. My own personal perspective is, is that god bless security guys because they’re always going to wear it, “Where the hell is security, why the hell does security not do this, why the hell does security not do that.” But I kind of salute them in that they didn’t resort to overwhelming use of force that could seriously deteriorate very, very quickly, and those are things you don’t want to have in a democracy. 

Q: And could also set a precedent that you wouldn’t want as a standard going forward.

A: Yeah, no. As I say, the key role is one of facilitation, trying to ensure that citizens of the country have their day, have their time carrying out that protest, but at the same time ensuring that safety and the business of democracy is able to take place. And there’s always going to be proponents who advocate more security. 

When they asked me to become the Sergeant-at-arms and said, “Why do you want to become the Sergeant-at-arms,” I told them I fell in love with that place, the House of Commons. And I told them I had an Aunt Anne Marie. She used to teach me poetry. This was at the PCO, you know, senior appointments. They’re all looking at me, scratching their heads, “Who is this guy?” And I said, one of the things that Anne Marie taught me was a poem by Robert Frost called the mending wall. I just started. I said: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it. Before I built a wall, I would ask what I was walling in, and what I was walling out, to whom I was likely to give offence. Something there is that does not love a wall that wants it down. You people make me the Sergeant-at-arms, there will be no walls built around Canada’s Parliament buildings.” They all kind of had tears in their eyes and I said to myself, “Yes! I got the job.” 

Q: Sounds like a clincher.

A: You know, these things can be all prevented, if you want to bring out the tanks and bring out the troops and build big walls around your democracy and isolate your legislators from the citizens they serve. But hopefully we won’t go there. 

Q: A lot of incidents are one-offs. Lone wolves. Protesters that show up for a day and go home. In Washington, I think there’s a lot more fear about what yesterday’s events were symptomatic of, that there could be more, whether things will get worse.

A: I have every confidence that they have what we call being intelligence-led, arranging your security posture to the threat of the day. And that’s vital, when you get back to this balance of security and an openness of Parliament or openness of the legislature is to be intelligence-led. 

Trump has a group of guys that he often signals to, the Proud Boys. I’d be flabbergasted if FBI, security services did not have sources within organizations like that that they’re getting intelligence back from. And developing other sources within that alt-right part of the group. And forming their security posture based on that intelligence that they’re getting out. It wouldn’t be out of the question that you’d have undercover police officers being part of those types of groups that have infiltrated and are there to pick up the intelligence so the security is able to arrange the appropriate posture. 

Q: In other words, ideally, they’re well-prepared for whatever might come next.

A: They would be, but the challenge is, you can look back and present your plan to the administration of the House—for me, present our plans to the speaker and, “This is what we think should take place” and we hear “Oh my goodness, Kevin, we can’t do that.” It’s always difficult. At least I question, would Capitol Hill police or senior personnel be frustrated asking for resources or asking for things that they didn’t receive for yesterday’s event? That’s just pure speculation on my part. 

Q: There’s always a political element to it.

A: Exactly.